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Snowboarder Kevin Pearce on ‘The Crash Reel,’ Brain Injuries, and Never Giving Up

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Kevin Pearce at Burton European Open 2009 in Switzerland; Photograph courtesy HBO
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Kevin Pearce taken at Air & Style 2007 event; Photograph courtesy Oliver Kurzemann/HBO

It’s possible to be both incredibly unlucky and incredibly lucky at once. Just ask Kevin Pearce.

On New Year’s Eve day in 2009 in Park City, Utah, the champion snowboarder, who was neck-and-neck with Shaun White for Olympic glory in Vancouver, suffered a horrific crash while practicing a double backflip with a twist on the half pipe left. He caught a toe-side edge in the landing and basically smashed his head above his left eye into the wall. Kevin was left with a Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI).

A new film, The Crash Reel, airing Monday, July 15, at 9 p.m. ET on HBO, shares Kevin’s story—and looks far beyond the themes of snowboarding and the risks embraced by extreme athletes. Two-time Academy Award-nominated director Lucy Walker turned the cameras on the the incredible Pearce family’s relentless commitment to bring Kevin back—and Kevin’s indomitable spirit to never give up. The film also includes video culled from more than 200 sources. (Learn more about the making of the film in an upcoming interview with Adam Pearce, Kevin’s devoted older brother and a co-producer of the film.)

It’s been three and a half years since the accident. Now 25 years old, Kevin doesn’t remember that first month of recovery. And every day he is confronted the frustrations of a TBI—loss of memory, vision problems, balance difficulties, and fatigue. He has returned to snowboarding, but not to compete.

That doesn’t mean he’s surrendered his passion for life. Kevin has found new ways to channel his love of risk. For example, public speaking. He spends his time encouraging people to “love their brains.” He started the Kevin Pearce Foundation to help families of kids with TBIs and Down’s syndrome (as seen in the film, the Pearce family has a wonderful, insightful son named David, who has Down’s Syndrome). He has also taken up surfing—in a helmet.

Kevin has something to say to all you out there who think you are too cool for a helmet when you hit the slopes: “Tell them they are idiots. Tell them to live a day in my shoes.”

Here Kevin tells us about his life.

The Crash Reel will air on HBO on Monday, 7/15, at 9 p.m. ET.

Adventure: Looking back at your snowboarding career, what motivated you to push yourself so hard and do such daring big-air tricks?

Kevin Pearce: It was the love I have for snowboarding. It gave me a special feeling that I haven’t found in anything else—being up in the mountains, on my own, the freedom, the self expression, that I could go up there every morning. It was able to do what I wanted and not to have any rules or regulations. It was such a special feeling for me.

A: So the drive was coming from within you, not coaches or sponsors?

KP: 110 percent. I never had coaches, really. There was never anything from my parents or my sponsors. It was all me.

A: What is your first memory after the accident?

KP: The first thing I remember was a month after it happened. They put me in an airplane when I was at the University of Utah and took me to a Denver rehab hospital.

I would have thought that I would have gotten to go on a nice jet and it would be all plush. But it was this little ghetto propeller plane. It was loud as all hell. And the flight attendant was being really mean to me and my brother. It was just really sad.

A: What’s it like to see yourself in the film, in those early days after the accident?

KP: It is cool for me to watch the film just because I don’t  remember so much of what’s in there. So to see where I was and what I put people through is very important for me to have. I think it’s very helpful. In some of those shots I don’t even recognize myself. I think, holy cow, did  I really look like that and was I really doing those things? It is pretty wild to see the transformation since then.

A: What’s it like to see the footage of when you were at the very top of your snowboarding game, at the very top of the sport?

KP: It’s hard to watch that stuff just because I still know so well how it felt to do it. And how much fun it was. It’s just hard not to be doing that anymore.

A: But you have made such an amazing recovery—and will continue to improve. In the film, we see many other traumatic brain injury (TBI) patients who were not so lucky, including the legendary Sarah Burke. How were you able to do that?

KP: I have always had this certain drive and push in me. And I have always done things to the limit. When I found out that I could have a future in snowboarding, I just took that and ran with it. I feel like the focus and the energy and the love were things that just allowed me to become that good at it. And that is how I approached my recovery, too.

A: We got to see how close and loving your family was through that process. How did that make a difference?

KP: Yeah, they were the biggest part of my recovery. There have been so many different things that happened. One of my buddies in the film said it was the perfect storm for it all to come together. It was the perfect crash to have something so bad happen, but then it was the perfect storm to have such a good recovery happen—with my family, first and foremost, and then with my friends, and then the whole snowboarding community, and how they rallied behind me and have been there for me. And then all my sponsors. And all my doctors. The list just goes on and on. So many things had to come together to make this possible.

A: Some people are going to watch the film and think snowboarding is too dangerous, as well as the other extreme sports. Do we need to crack down on them? Do you think these sports should be tamed?

KP: I believe that these athletes should be able to do what they want. That was so amazing for me and that’s why I loved it so much. There were no rules. No regulations. I could wake up every morning and do whatever I wanted. I could get up there at 3 p.m. in the afternoon or 8 a.m. in the morning. There was never a coach up there telling me what I needed to be doing or what and where I needed to be. I’d go up every day and do what I wanted. I feel like it was 100 percent my choice. That is what drew me to it, and that’s why I loved it. And I would hate to see that change.

A: You have had one of the worst injuries. And yet you still wouldn’t regulate a thing?

KP: I think people should be smart. And I think they should be doing tricks within their abilities. And I think helmets should definitely be worn, 100 percent, hands down, no question, when you are snowboarding.

A: What do you say to those the old-schoolers who won’t wear a helmet?

KP: I think it’s a joke. I think if they knew what it was like to go through a brain injury or realized what can happen they would wear one. It is so much fun to be able to ski and snowboard. I feel like they would never think twice about putting a helmet on if they realized the could lose it forever.

A: I’m going to make sure to tell people you said that!

KP: Tell them they are idiots. Tell them to live a day in my shoes.

A: What is it like to live with your brain injury today?

KP: It still comes up every single day. Every single day for the last three and a half years. There hasn’t been a day that has gone by that something hasn’t made me think of it. Or that I have to deal with the fact that I am injured.

It’s an invisible injury to most people in the world but it’s the most miserable injury for me.  I have endless memory issues. And my vision. Those are the top two. Then it’s my balance and my fatigue. I am lying in bed right now because I just took a nap. I get tired so easily. To be 25 year old and get this tired this easily just sucks. I did some interviews today, but I didn’t have a long stressful day. And still I have to take a nap every day because I get so tired and my brain doesn’t have the capacity that it used to.

A: You made a point to stay positive during your recovery?

KP: Over the last three years I have hd a lot of fun with it. I have made as many jokes as possible and made the most out of every situation.

One day my brother Adam and I were at this hospital in Denver—it was a pretty intense hospital, all quadrapalegics, parapalegics, and traumatic brain injury kids—it was a shitty situation to be in that hospital. So we decided to try to make every single person who we encountered smile or laugh. We have been doing things this the entire time that have been stupid and funny and fun. And it helps so much to make it bearable to get though.

A: Do you think that positive attitude helped you heal physically?

KP: I feel like the positive attitude has been huge for healing. And I think your brain gets so much from you being positive. I don’t know if there is neuroscience or research behind it, but I know that my brain is so much happier and healthier because I appreciate it.

I started this fund called the Kevin Pearce Fund. It’s about supporting other families that don’t have the means that I had. And for people who have children with brain injuries or Down’s syndrome and have been affected. We have these shirts that say “Love” and then the “O” is a brain. The idea is to love your brain. It’s so important for kids with brain injuries, but then all kids. All brains need to be loved. They can’t always be serious and mad. They need to have fun.

A: What do you want to do with the Kevin Pearce Fund?

KP: The first step is to raise money to help people learn and get as much help as they can. We started a bunch of initiatives … like things you can do after you hit your brain and ways you can find out if you are OK to return to your sport. And telling people how to make sure that you are doing the right thing to keep your brain safe, whether it’s wearing helmets or other things to keep your brain safe.

A: You are naturally a risk taker. How do you feel about risk and risky activities now?

KP: I love risk. It still lights me up and gets my heart beating. And I love that feeling of taking a risk and doing something scary. It was those moments that I loved the most in snowboarding, those risky moments when they drop you off in a helicopter up on top of the mountain in Alaska. Or when you’re dropping into X Games pipe and you got one jump and you have to land it to win the contest. Those are the moments that wake me up and that really brought me alive—and I loved it so much.

A: Do you find that rush in different ways now?

KP: I find it hard to reenact that, to get that feeling back. So I have been trying, but I have not been successful yet.

A: What have you been trying? 

KP: Public speaking. It’s pretty scary to get up in front of a couple hundred people and trying not to sound like an idiot. And I’ve been surfing. It’s a fun sport that I can participate in now. It’s hard but it’s good.  I wear a helmet when I do it.

A: Where are some of your favorite surf spots?

KP: Up at my uncle’s house in Malibu, he has this private surf break. And it’s the most amazing place ever. And I’ve been to Bali, and that was so fun. I have been down to Cabo, I went to a fun break down there. I’ve been heli-surfing in Norway. It was cold as all hell and brutal.

A: Is surfing helping you with your balance?

KP: It sure is. I still have work to do and I have a lot to improve, but it’s getting a lot better.

A: Will you be at Sochi Winter Olympics?

KP: Yeah I am! Nike has me going out there and I’m going to be carrying the torch for the opening ceremonies.

A: How do you approach snowboarding now?

KP: I just approach it in a much more easy, mellow way so I can just go out and not put too much pressure on myself to go out and learn some crazy stuff. I really just enjoy being up in the mountains and being in the snow.

A: What’s next?

KP: Right now it’s public speaking. Spreading the word and raising awareness to brain injuries and what they entail. And raising money and getting the Kevin Pearce Fund off the ground and trying to make a difference in this world, if I can.